by Jeremy Johnson
Park Avenue Uprising, a Pittsburg performance collective, do a lot of things, as they displayed when they took the stage at TJ Leland’s on Saturday night. Here’s the sequence of their performance that best gets at what they do: guitarist Joe Davis, bassist Nancey Konek, and keyboardist/composer Steve Passeri took the stage for their third set and opened it by playing a recording of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” while the early scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey showed on a TV screen. Then the band comes in, continuing the main riff and aided by recorded drums and synthesizers, and turns the whole thing into this psychedelic ’70s jam session, complete with spacey synths and reverb-drenched, wah-fueled guitar gymnastics, during which time the mind-bending light-show at the end of 2001 comes on. And they burned incense while this took place.
But the ’70s-influenced rock show paired with cinematic visuals (at another point, the Georges Méliès silent film A Trip to the Moon played) is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire performance played something like postmodern vaudeville, since the 3-piece was just one of several acts in the show. Several acts featured lone artists doing their thing, usually accompanied by recorded music and/or visuals of clouds, the ocean, space, and other suggestive images. Lastacia Ross offered several performance art/interpretative dance pieces–one involving a pair of wings. Kelli Zellner sang covers of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and The Doors’ “People Are Strange.” And acoustic guitarist Joe Gobetz performed several covers, including an homage to David Bowie with “Space Oddity,” which featured his veritable Bowie-esque croon.
The most forceful performance was delivered by Olive Sullivan reading spoken-word poems. But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill poetry. On “The Physics of Fly Fishing,” she takes a subject that might otherwise put people to sleep and turns it into a sensuous, voluptuous experience, particularly when she makes it clear she’s got steamier things in mind than just fly fishing–a trait all of her poems have in common. But what really drives it home is the music backing her. With Lastacia Ross on djembe, Kelli Zellner on muted trumpet, Nancey Konek on bass, and Steve Passeri on piano, a jazz combo builds up a gorgeous, immediate portrait of a scene best placed in Chicago or New York, and the effect is powerful. The sex is often explicit, yes, but it’s also visceral, and the music sells it so you feel it in your bones when she compares a jazz band to lovemaking.
And this is indicative of what the group does so well: they set a mood, and they sustain it the whole time, keeping all of the senses engaged. How many live shows have you been to where the band just plays through a list of songs, ignorant to mood or feel or the experience of the audience? Park Avenue Uprising is the opposite of that, highly coordinated and designed to give listeners/viewers a blissed-out high that they can nod along to, and say at the end of it all, “Whoa.”